Corruption in Ancient Rome And Its Counterpart in Modern History
The United States is subject to that law to-day, as is old Europe, as will be future generations, and as past ages were. Moreover, to understand at bottom this phenomenon, which appears to me to be the soul of all history, it is well to add this consideration: It is evident that there is a capital difference between our judgment of this phenomenon and that of the ancients; to them it was a malevolent force of dissolution to which should be attributed all in Roman history that was sinister and dreadful, a sure sign of incurable decay; that is why they called it "corruption of customs," and so lamented it. To-day, on the contrary, it appears to us a universal beneficent process of transformation; so true is this that we call "progress" many facts which the ancients attributed to "corruption." It were useless to expand too much in examples; enough to cite a few. In the third ode of the first book, in which he so tenderly salutes the departing Virgil, Horace covers with invective, as an evil-doer and the corrupter of the human race, that impious being who invented the ship, which causes man, created for the land, to walk across waters. Who would to-day dare repeat those maledictions against the bold builders who construct the magnificent trans-Atlantic liners on which, in a dozen days from Genoa, one lands in Boston or New York? "Coelum ipsum petimus stultitia," exclaims Horace - that is to say, in anticipation he considered the Wright brothers crazy.
Who, save some man of erudition, has knowledge to-day of sumptuary laws? We should laugh them all down with one Homeric guffaw, if to-day it entered somebody's head to propose a law that forbade fair ladies to spend more than a certain sum on their clothes, or numbered the hats they might wear; or that regulated dinners of ceremony, fixing the number of courses, the variety of wines, and the total expense; or that prohibited labouring men and women from wearing certain stuffs or certain objects that were wont to be found only upon the persons of people of wealth and leisure. And yet laws of this tenor were compiled, published, observed, up to two centuries ago, without any one's finding it absurd. The historic force that, as riches increase, impels the new generations to desire new satisfactions, new pleasures, operated then as to-day; only then men were inclined to consider it as a new kind of ominous disease that needed checking. To-day men regard that constant transformation either as beneficent, or at least as such a matter of course that almost no one heeds it; just as no one notices the alternations of day and night, or the change of seasons. On the contrary, we have little by little become so confident of the goodness of this force that drives the coming generation on into the unknown future, that society, European, American, among other liberties has won in the nineteenth century, full and entire, a liberty that the ancients did not know - freedom in vice.
To the Romans it appeared most natural that the state should survey private habits, should spy out what a citizen, particularly a citizen belonging to the ruling classes, did within domestic walls - should see whether he became intoxicated, whether he were a gourmand, whether he contracted debts, spending much or little, whether he betrayed his wife. The age of Augustus was cultured, civilised, liberal, and in many things resembled our own; yet on this point the dominating ideas were so different from ours, that at one time Augustus was forced by public opinion to propose a law on adultery by which all Roman citizens of both sexes guilty of this crime were condemned to exile and the confiscation of half their substance, and there was given to any citizen the right to accuse the guilty. Could you imagine it possible to-day, even for a few weeks, to establish this regime of terror in the kingdom of Amor? But the ancients were always inclined to consider as exceedingly dangerous for the upper classes that relaxing of customs which always follows periods of rapid enrichment, of great gain in comforts; behind his own walls to-day, every one is free to indulge himself as he will, to the confines of crime.
How can we explain this important difference in judging one of the essential phenomena of historic life? Has this phenomenon changed nature, and from bad, by some miracle, become good? Or are we wiser than our forefathers, judging with experience what they could hardly comprehend? There is no doubt that the Latin writers, particularly Horace and Livy, were so severe in condemning this progressive movement of wants because of unconscious political solicitude, because intellectual men expressed the opinions, sentiments, and also the prejudices of historic aristocracy, and this detested the progress ofambitio, avaritia, luxuria, because they undermined the dominance of its class. On the other hand, it is certain that in the modern world every increase of consumption, every waste, every vice, seems permissible, indeed almost meritorious, because men of industry and trade, the employees in industries - that is, all the people that gain by the diffusion of luxuries, by the spread of vices or new wants - have acquired, thanks above all to democratic institutions, and to the progress of cities, an immense political power that in times past they lacked. If, for example, in Europe the beer-makers and distillers of alcohol were not more powerful in the electoral field than the philosophers and academicians, governments would more easily recognise that the masses should not be allowed to poison themselves or future generations by chronic drunkenness.
Between these two extremes of exaggeration, inspired by a self-interest easy to discover, is there not a true middle way that we can deduce from the study of Roman history and from the observation of contemporary life?